Australia: Domestic violence – How many more Rhonda Bakers have to die?

Rhonda Baker's story is an all too familiar one. It's disturbingly plagued with all of the 'obvious' elements of a typical partner violence situation that resulted in her death.

31-year old Onitolosi Etuini Atiai Latu was recently sentenced to a maximum of 28 years in prison for assaulting Rhonda Baker so badly in August 2016 that he killed her. He was is required to serve a minimum term of 21 years, for what the Judge described as a "murder of extreme brutality".

During the sentencing proceedings, Justice Julia Lonergan said: "Given the number of distinct injuries, the terrifying powerlessness she must have felt, and the undoubted brutality of the manner in which the fatal injuries to her head and face were inflicted, I consider this to be a very serious example of offending of this type."

Sadly, Rhonda Baker's life as a victim of intimate partner violence is all too text-book, including the fact Mr Latu had previously been imprisoned for attacking another partner in 2013, and was issued with an apprehended domestic violence order in April 2016 – just a few months before Rhonda's killing – after someone witnessed him attacking her in their car.

The court also heard that the physical and psychological abuse he subjected Ms Baker to went as far back as 2010, and his violent behaviour escalated in the lead up to her death. Tendered in court was an email Ms Baker sent herself which outlined the brutal existence she suffered at the hands of Mr Latu, and foreshadowed: "one day I will be dead". She wrote of his bashings, and contemplated suicide.

About a week prior to her death, Ms Baker turned up at work with facial injuries. She had, on previous occasions, worn sunglasses and scarves to cover up bruises from her abuse.

This time, she told a colleague she had been punched in the face. She had, according to friends and colleagues, spoken repeatedly about getting away but was worried Mr Latu would find her. She said she planned to leave him this time, to go to live with relatives.

As most victim support professionals know, this is the most dangerous time for victims. It's a time when, if the violence is severe enough, the woman is most likely to be killed. So in this way too, Rhonda Baker's death was alarmingly typical of so many women in her situation.

Ten days later, she was dead.

The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children

Just last week, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) endorsed the Fourth Action Plan within the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022, agreeing on five national priorities to reduce family, domestic and sexual violence.

The plan comes with $328 million funding, which was announced by the Federal Government earlier this year, and is the final plan in a series that have been implemented since 2009. While full details of the Fourth Action Plan are yet to be announced, the Department of Social Services website says it " sets out an ambitious but practical agenda to achieve change and eradicate the unacceptable acts of violence against women and their children."

While it's clear that domestic and family violence and violence against women generally have become so entrenched in Australian society, we will need to wait some years to see real change, questions really do need to be raised about the effectiveness of the measures being put in place to combat the problem.

How are we measuring effectiveness?

In its last progress report, dated 2016-2017, it's evident that both the Federal Government and the states and territories have each made substantial financial investments in reducing the number of women and children affected by family and domestic violence.

But the reported statistics show cause for concern.

The progress report admits that while the prevalence of violence against women in Australia has been falling since at least 1996, numbers show that the two areas in particular targeted by the national plan — sexual violence and partner violence – have increased between 2012 and 2016.

If this is the case, then how are we measuring effectiveness? Millions of taxpayer dollars are being targeted at an issue that is highly relevant and important to most Australians. And yet, there are still too many stories like Rhonda Bakers, who was completely failed by a system that should have offered her protection. On average one woman each week is murdered by her current or former partner.

Rhonda's family describes her as "the nicest girl ever." Court evidence tells the story of a bright young woman who knew she was in trouble. Family and friends looked out for her, but she felt trapped in fear. Sickening fear, that even if she did get away, she would be found. The court heard Mr Latu had threatened "cave her head in" and that he also told Ms Baker that if she left him he would "go after her family and burn her grandfather's house down."

It's despicable that despite the fact that her situation was known to family and friends, the fact that her partner had a previous conviction, and the fact that she did, by all accounts, have both an income to make some choices and somewhere to go if she left Mr Latu, she remained unsafe at the hands of a man who was supposed to care for her, but instead had a tendency to pull "pull the hair, knock unconscious or karate-kick in the face," the women who displeased him.

In the end Mr Latu beat Rhonda so badly she died in hospital from a brain injury as a result of the multiple blows he inflicted to her head. He told paramedics she might have been beaten down the street. Blood in their apartment suggested otherwise. Even after he was found guilty, he told a psychiatrist that an ex-boyfriend was behind her death.

If we understand the hallmarks of a potential non-remorseful violent re-offender, if we can plainly see a victim in trouble, if we are implementing initiatives nation-wide to improve education and social awareness, as well as access to front line emergency and crisis services, why do we keep hearing the tragic and disturbing stories of women like Rhonda?

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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